As lawyers, we hear much about those who are unhappy in the legal profession and those who have left the law to find satisfaction elsewhere. Yet there are many lawyers who have found happiness in their careers by making transitions within the profession. It's about time we heard from some of those practitioners. Here are the experiences of, and the lessons learned by, four such lawyers: Ryan Lawrence, Dan Keppler, Adrienne Nelson and Donna Coningsby.
Lawrence, who has been in private practice for 30 years, decided on his transition in a matter of days; the others, who have been in practice for a range of 5 to 15 years, found that their evolutions to career satisfaction occurred more slowly over several years. All, however, learned that there are common elements in meeting professional goals and needs.
Here is what each of these lawyers shared with me about changing their careers within the field of law.
Switching Off the Adversarial Track
In the mid-1970s, Ryan Lawrence was about to leave the law because of the adversarial nature of his practice-criminal law, personal injury and divorce. He was disturbed by the way the adversarial system didn't necessarily solve problems. It certainly didn't do so in the way Lawrence thought was important. In fact, Lawrence didn't like the aggressiveness that surfaced in him when he felt the opposing side was being unreasonable.
At that point, Lawrence took himself on a personal retreat to Mt. Angel Abbey. He analyzed his skills, interests and needs with the help of Richard Bolles' What Color Is My Parachute? and compared his wants and needs with a range of occupations and job settings. His paramount question was: " What could I do with the law where I can be in a better environment and around people with similar interests?"
He ultimately moved his office to share space with architects and designers, professionals with whom he felt a great affinity. He stopped taking cases if he didn't like the client or if he didn't agree with the issues. This led him to focus more on real estate law and investment.
Doing so took nerve. Lawrence was recently divorced and had two young children to support. But he felt he had to act according to the truths he discovered at Mt. Angel. That included developing a core client base of people he could actually like, people who are friends or might be. Along the way, he and others formed the Family Mediation Center using a team approach with lawyers and therapists. Although no longer connected with this center, he still practices mediation.
In addition, Lawrence discovered that he liked the deal making and financing involved in real estate ventures. So he began to go into partnerships with some friends in purchasing and developing small-scale properties. Some of those partnerships have now lasted more than 15 years. He has made good alliances and good decisions. To Lawrence, partnering with friends to purchase property simply makes sense -the relationship is built on trust; the parties live up to expectations; and there is more concern for what happens to the other partner than in arm's-length dealings.
A particular legacy remains from Lawrence's time at Mt. Angel Abbey. Every year, he continues to put down on paper annual goals for his physical well-being, his inner life, his business, his family and his personal growth. He maintains a folder full of these plans and uses it as a system to stay on track in living his values and in considering his whole life, not just his work. (Although he is the first to admit that he continues to stumble along the way.) Lawrence recently relocated his law office to a building he and his partners are converting to executive suites.
Shifting to Land the Right Job Components
Now let's hear about Dan Keppler, who graduated from law school in Spokane in the mid-1990s. Keppler had no contacts when he arrived in Portland, Oregon, where he wanted to work. The job market was tight. He had clerked for the U.S. Attorney's Office during law school and thought he might like to become a prosecutor. He made it to the second-interview stage for a position at the local county district attorney's office, and he had several interviews with large firms, none of which resulted in a job offer. At that point, he applied with a firm that had an indigent criminal defense contract and obtained a position doing post-conviction relief work.
As he gathered courtroom experience, Keppler became frustrated by his clients' overwhelming socioeconomic problems and his inability to make a difference. Also, owing to shear caseload, his first face-to-face meetings with his clients were often in the courtroom. Keppler knew he didn't like this disconnected manner of dealing with clients. A further source of dissatisfaction was the fact that criminal law attorneys move up by handling cases involving increasingly violent crimes. Although Keppler has great respect for lawyers who are able to handle such cases, he knew then that it wasn't the right future for him.
The final cause of his dissatisfaction was that the case issues were often the same, resulting in few intellectual challenges on a day-to-day basis. Keppler also liked to write briefs but found there was no time and, most often, no need-a short memorandum would do. When the indigent services contract changed, Keppler didn't particularly mind that his position was no longer required.
But also during that period of his criminal law experience, a key thing happened for Keppler: He developed a relationship with opposing counsel on a case. Keppler recognized that opposing counsel had a personality and style similar to his own, and he pursued a friendship with him that ultimately resulted in the type of job and career shift that Keppler desired. That, though, was something he wouldn't know until much later.
In the meantime, Keppler embarked on a year of criminal defense contract work and career exploration. It was uncomfortable trying to find a career focus, but he persevered and was patient. He went to the Lawyers in Transition sessions offered by the state bar's attorney assistance program; attended a talk by Deborah Arron, author of What Can You Do with a Law Degree?; attended a Young Lawyers panel on contract lawyering; and met Deborah Guyol, co-author with Arron of The Complete Guide to Contract Lawyering. He began to call lawyers and others to explore options and obtain advice on his career direction. He examined his likes and dislikes and checked them against what others liked and disliked in their jobs.
Keppler arranged informational interviews at least two or three times per week and was amazed that top-level people were willing to meet with him for career discussions. He explored in-house counsel as a possible career shift and met with members of the legal departments at several large companies. Also, he explored the nonprofit sector and mediation. Then, at a seminar he heard a participant say to an experienced mediator, "You're a good mediator, but are you happy?" This was the first time Keppler had heard that the two concepts didn't necessarily go together. It was an "ah-ha" experience.
To obtain support for moving forward, Keppler joined a Success Team sponsored by Oregon Women Lawyers. (Brave man!) He appreciated the structure the group provided-especially because his search had no clear end point or timeline-as well as the message that exploration and networking was what he was supposed to be doing. This group approach was a strong motivator for him.
By this point, Keppler realized he would be happier in civil, rather than criminal, law. He began to solicit contract work on civil cases, making it a point to meet lawyers and tell them what he did and ask if they needed or knew of other attorneys who needed someone like him. He joined the Oregon Women Lawyers Contract Lawyer Referral List. He approached a partner in his wife's firm who was going solo and who might need a contract lawyer. And this last contact landed him a job as an associate (ironically at a time when his contract lawyering finally became in high demand). Keppler worked for this practitioner for a year or two, primarily on one big product liability case. But he knew that he needed more variety and more people to work with. That's when his friend who had once been opposing counsel approached Keppler at a CLE program. His friend, who had since moved to a small civil litigation firm, told Keppler that the firm was hiring.
As it happened, Keppler also had a friend from law school at this firm so he took that friend to lunch to learn about an open attorney position at the firm. He queried the friend about whether he should apply for the position, whether he would like the position, what it was like to work at this firm and whether his friend was happy there. Then Keppler applied for and got the job.
He has been in the firm for five years now. He likes what he is doing-civil litigation in a very supportive environment. He has variety and intellectual challenges. And the firm culture supports its lawyers in having a life outside of work, which is more important to Keppler since he recently became a father. Plus, he feels supported in seeking a stronger connection with the community. In sum, this job has all the components that Keppler had identified for satisfaction in his law career.
Fulfilling a Promise to Move On
When she moved from Texas to Oregon after law school, Adrienne Nelson made a promise to herself: "I'm going to do it my way because I'm not going to have any regrets at the end of my life. When it doesn't feel right, I'll make plans to move on." She has put her principle into action through several transitions within the law-and she's one of the happiest lawyers you'll ever meet.
Nelson began her legal career as a compliance officer at a large insurance company. However, she knew that she wanted courtroom experience and lots of client contact. She was interested in criminal law and decided to seek defense work. She researched the firms and agencies involved in indigent criminal defense and applied for a position when one became available.
She describes that particular interview as both horrendous and a good preparation for the first day on the job. On the spot, she was told to prepare a closing argument based on a fact pattern within just 20 minutes. She then had to present in front of the full staff of the firm, 10 people with whom she would soon be working. Her closing argument was followed by questions, both on the argument and on situations that arise when dealing with accused clients. Nelson stayed two years in the public defender position.
As time went on, though, her caseload increased to the point of discomfort. She also experienced unappreciative clients, those who liked being caught up in the system and blaming everyone else for their troubles-including their lawyer. Then one day, she found herself wondering whether she would lose her license to practice if she struck back at a client who was about to hit her. Fortunately, the client saw the look in her eye and backed off. But Nelson knew that it was time to move on, to let her guiding principle take hold and seek a change.
She looked inside herself to determine what she might like to do next and decided she wanted civil practice with high client contact. Being especially interested in labor law, she researched the local firms in that field. When a position opened up at one, she decided to apply for it, even though the position was to be part domestic relations work along with part labor law. She did learn that her prior experience helped her get the job in three ways. First, the judges knew her work and the firm called them about her. Second, two lawyers in the firm had also been public defenders at some point. Lastly, a criminal defense lawyer who shared office space with the firm highly recommended her.
Then, soon after Nelson took the position, the partner who handled most of the domestic relations practice had a stroke and she took over his cases. She is in the midst of re-evaluating this situation, now that two more years have passed. In fact, she is thinking about a more transactional practice, having found that there is hardly ever a real answer to a dissolution of marriage. She is fortunate to work in a firm that offers her the opportunity to build a practice around whatever field of law she chooses.
She has this career advice to share with other lawyers: "Have an honest talk with yourself on what you want to practice and for how long. Your decision affects the energy you put in. Then, too, you need to research firms by asking other lawyers. Be active!" Nelson is a great example of someone who gets out there and relies on her acquaintances for good advice on firms and opportunities. She is an Oregon delegate to the ABA as well as president of Queen's Bench, a local women's bar association, and a delegate to the Oregon State Bar House of Delegates. She is also involved in many community activities. By looking inside, Adrienne makes wise decisions for herself. By looking to others, she is able to implement her career decisions.
Persevering through a Tough Market (with Some Consulting on the Side)
Donna Coningsby attended law school after a successful career as a computer programmer in the mid-1980s. She took time off during law school to earn needed funds by working as a computer consultant, graduating in midyear 1987. Since that was around the time of the October stock market crash, she faced a hard job market in which to seek her first job in the law. The benefit of that situation, however, was that Coningsby looked beyond private practice and landed a criminal law position for Legal Aid in New York City, a job she thoroughly enjoyed for two years.
As Coningsby puts it, she never does things in order. So after deciding that the Legal Aid position was not paying her bills, she sought a clerkship, and a change of scenery, in Alaska. She clerked for the chief judge of the Criminal Division of the Alaska Superior Court for one year.
Then she headed back to New York, again finding the job market poor as the country slowly pulled out of the 1990 recession. Once more she took up computer consulting, which she found more lucrative than working for Legal Aid. But Coningsby was still seeking career satisfaction in the law
Deciding to try another locale, she moved to Oregon. What she had in mind was work in contract administration or licensing as a way to use her technical skills without having to return to school to become a full-fledged patent lawyer. But she knew no lawyers in Oregon and soon found that the legal job market there was bleak, too. It was at this point that Coningsby learned how to network. She quickly became a representative on the Oregon State Bar Task Force on Technology (formed to assist the bar in developing a Web site in 1994) and she also joined the Oregon Women's Success Team program. During this time, she decided that the only way to use her technical skills was to hit employers over the head with them-she resolved to become a patent lawyer.
Coningsby registered at Portland State University and took courses in physics to qualify to sit for the Patent and Trademark Office registration exam. In addition, she continued her bar activities, joined the Computer Law Section and met other lawyers interested in technology and computer law. Importantly, she was matched with a patent lawyer mentor through a local bar. More than a year later, her mentor offered her a part-time position. She was thrilled to be doing legal work again. Meanwhile, she finished her physics courses, supporting herself not only through the part-time legal position, but also through computer consulting for a large insurance company in the same building.
Once she took the patent bar examination, that part-time position became full-time-until a downturn in business put her back on part-time status. Not again! At this point, she again turned to industry, this time with a dot-com start-up in which she used both her technical and lawyering skills. Unfortunately, that company soon experienced financial difficulties and, eventually, went bankrupt. Coningsby was finally ready to seek a position as a patent lawyer.
She was soon hired by the largest patent law firm in Portland, where she worked for more than a year. Unhappy there for a variety of reasons, however, she investigated other patent firms, seeking a litigation job. She experienced several rejections and finally sought a non-litigation patent law position-she ultimately obtained one at a California-based firm in suburban Portland. She enjoys the work and the huge client base. She has an amazingly diverse array of clients, and is better compensated than she was at her previous firm. Plus, she likes the large scope and the challenges of her work as a lawyer.
Her advice to others seeking job satisfaction is, "Look before you leap." She did not know how to network or to market her skills-skills that, along the way, she learned were vital. She also cautions that it is more difficult for a woman to become a litigator and found that subtle prejudice was at work against her in that regard. She also advises others to make their transition before the age of 40, if possible, to avoid another subtle form of discrimination: At one job, for example, the firm posted a slogan about looking for the "next generation" of litigators, an apparent effort to attract younger attorneys.
And finally, while being mindful of your personal considerations, keep plugging away on your transition-don't give up. Persistence paid off for her.
A Recipe for Career Satisfaction: Know the Mileposts
Whether it's a long travel or a short one, the road to career satisfaction has the same mileposts. As an initial step, we all need to look inside ourselves and assess our likes, skills, interests and values. It is only then that we can explore what changes we might make to achieve career satisfaction. How can we work in the law in a way that fits our needs and desires? The next, and often the hardest, step is asking people for what you seek. Remember, initiating and maintaining relationships is frequently the key to achieving your needs. The final ingredients in obtaining career satisfaction? Patience and persistence.
Congratulations to all those who forge on with their search and provide us with role models for happiness in our chosen careers as lawyers.
Katherine Foldes (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a contract lawyer in Portland, OR, founder of Oregon Women Lawyers' Success Team Program and founder of Career Teams, a career and job search counseling program for professionals.
Resources That Will Help Inform Your Career Choices
Alternative Careers for Lawyers by Hillary Mantis. Princeton Review, 1997.
Changing Jobs: A Handbook for Lawyers in the New Millennium, 3rd ed., edited by Heidi McNeil Staudenmaier. ABA, 1999.
Direct Examination: A Workbook for Lawyer Career Satisfaction by Kathy Morris and Jill Eckert. ABA, 2001.
Do What You Are: Discover the Perfect Career for You Through the Secrets of Personality Type by Paul D. Tieger and Barbara Barron-Tieger. Little, Brown & Co., 2001.
The Happy Lawyer by Larry Schreiter. Shiloh Publications, 1999.
Keeping Good Lawyers: Best Practices to Create Career Satisfaction by M. Diane Vogt and Lori-Ann Rickard. ABA, 2000.
The Lawyer's Career Change Handbook by Hindi Greenberg. Avon Books, 1998.
Nonlegal Careers for Lawyers, 4th ed., by Gary A. Munneke and William D. Henslee. ABA, 2003.
What Can You Do with a Law Degree? by Deborah Arron. Niche Press, 1997.
What Color Is Your Parachute? 2003 by Richard Nelson Bolles. Ten Speed Press, 2002.
ON THE WEB
www.cofla.org (Career Options for Lawyers Association)
www.acca.com (American Corporate Counsel Association)
http://profdev.lp.findlaw.com (Center for Professional Development in the Law)
www.opajobs.com (opportunities in public affairs)
www.usajobs.opm.gov (federal government positions)